CAMPAIGNS: Local tourism club invades Richmond to drive trail traffic

PR Team: Virginia's Retreat (Petersburg, VA) and Siddall, Inc. (Richmond, VA) Campaign: Opening the Wilson-Kautz Trail Time Frame: April-June 2002 Budget: $25,000

PR Team: Virginia's Retreat (Petersburg, VA) and Siddall, Inc. (Richmond, VA) Campaign: Opening the Wilson-Kautz Trail Time Frame: April-June 2002 Budget: $25,000

A new Civil War hiking trail about to open in southern Virginia last summer presented a real public relations dilemma for local tourism organization Virginia's Retreat. The trail followed the march of Union soldiers as they headed toward an obscure battle. The citizens of Richmond, once the capital of the rebel South, are as educated as any Americans when it comes to the Civil War. But even they knew little of the Wilson-Kautz Raid, an ambitious-yet-failed attempt by Union Soldiers to hasten the South's defeat by marching toward Richmond and smashing railroad tracks along the way. Strategy If Virginia's Retreat hoped to get more people to hike the trail, they were going to have to educate them on its significance - especially considering how many other trails there are in the state that commemorate much more famous Civil War marches. To remedy the problem, Virginia's Retreat hired Siddall, a small, Richmond-based integrated shop, which set to work on an idea dubbed "The Invasion of Richmond." Tactics The team decided to play on Richmonders' memories of the Civil War, both good and bad, by having "troops" invade the downtown area during lunch hour - much as Union soldiers did nearly 150 years ago. Local media would be alerted and stationed along the route, but citizens would be taken by surprise. The idea was to create a spectacle that would result in both news coverage and word-of-mouth marketing. Six actors dressed as Union soldiers marched into downtown Richmond during the height of lunch hour on a June afternoon. Along the way they handed out flyers - printed and aged to look like handbills of the 1860s - announcing what they were doing, where they were going, and how people could learn more about the trail. Invited reporters followed the soldiers to an open square in the middle of town. There, railroad tracks had been set up specifically for the event. A crowd of people, many of whom followed the soldiers along their march to see what they were up to, gathered to watch. "They got off their horses and tore up the tracks," recalls Bill Phelps, account supervisor at Siddall. "It was a crowded summer day, so we had several hundred people there to watch it unfold. We also had a speaker who could talk about what they were doing, the story behind the trail, and why they should visit." After it was over, the reporters were given video b-roll and photos of highlights of the trail. Presumably, the office workers on their lunch breaks went back to their desks and told their coworkers what they had just seen. Results It's impossible to gauge just how much interoffice chatter the event generated, but the Invasion of Richmond did spawn at least nine TV segments, 36 newspaper stories, and two radio spots. Because the team was aiming to attract crowds from within a day's drive, most coverage was confined to local media - including the front pages of seven newspapers. But USA Today liked the story enough to run it nationally. Unfortunately, because of the trail's size (300 miles), no hard numbers about visitors are available. But there are indicators: Calls to the Civil War Trails hotline increased 41% in the six months following the event, and a national park along the trail has seen an increase in the number of informational materials distributed since the trail's opening. Future The Invasion of Richmond project is done, but Virginia's Retreat's efforts are far from over. The group is reportedly considering opening another Civil War trail later this year.

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